Purposeful, confrontational, and unremittingly bleak, The Tribe is an innovative, haunting drama about the darkest corners of humanity; a flawed-but-forceful addition to the cinema of the downtrodden; and a silent horror story that makes one writhe in discomfort on multiple occasions. Nihilistic and provocative beyond measure, it’s an experimental social portrait of no sound and all fury, where wordless dialogue screams in agony.
In Ukraine, Serhiy enters a specialized boarding school for the deaf. Alone and abandoned in an unfamiliar place, he becomes accustomed to the brutal hierarchy of the student community. After encountering the tribe, a young gang that runs the system and operates like a Mafiosi group, Serhiy passes several hazing rituals and takes part in robberies. He soon becomes pimp-protector for two of the girls, who spend their nights as prostitutes at the local truck stop. However, when he falls in love with one of them, Serhiy responds violently, with tragic consequences.
The Tribe boasts the least weighty but most all-encompassing of 2014’s three remarkable conceits (the other two being Boyhood and Phoenix). Before the film introduces its central character, two sentences appear on screen: “This film is in sign language. There are no translation, no subtitles, no voice-over.” It’s an unsettling and rather foreboding way of bringing the audience up to speed on its method, but it’s effective enough, though nothing can prepare its viewers for what lies ahead.
In this skillful debut, writer-director Myroslav Slaboshpytskyi’s “dream to pay homage to the silent movie” comes to startling fruition. Based on his experience as a reporter, Slaboshpytskyi employs a bare-bones “band of hoodlums” narrative and situates it in an entirely new context. In The Tribe, Slaboshpytskyi alternates between the rough and the fluid and relies on feral postural performances to maintain an unbearable level of intensity, meticulously framing depravity and nakedness with a disturbing beauty.
As such, The Tribe becomes an audacious, nightmarish examination of teenage crime, exploitation, and cruelty. Designed to be shocking, its sense of desolation and the inability to identify with the characters drains all potential enjoyment well before the halfway point; what’s left is originality and an utterly unique filmgoing experience. The approach may be crude, but the impact is undeniable: it’s the equivalent of a cinematic blow to the head. Its uncompromising emotional inflammation may leave you shaken, alienated, moved, or disgusted, but it will not leave you unchanged.
The Tribe embraces the misery of the Romanian New Wave (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) without any of its black humour. It has Irreversible-like barbarity, including a dismal, horrifyingly rudimentary abortion scene straight out of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, as well as elements of The Class, The Godfather, and A Prophet in its young kingpin willing to do whatever it takes to survive. The grimy extremities of the last five minutes will test the most steely of stomachs.
Yet this kind of bold artistic dedication needs to be applauded, not resisted. It is a useful endeavour to imagine each characters’ interior monologues instead of being handed their thoughts on a silver platter, but we’re rarely given the chance or reason to do so. The film’s tagline is “Love and hate need no translation”; the same can be said for embarrassment or pain or fear or terror, all of which are in full supply. Much can be communicated without words, and The Tribe’s silence communicates in spades.
Stubborn and sad and unbendingly determined, with static long takes and the fearless rejection of the most primal of cinematic tools, The Tribe is upsetting and downright harrowing, and its world should not be entered unwarned or unprepared. Nevertheless, its numerous shortcomings are left by the wayside in the face of its searing strangeness and stupendous ambition. Fittingly, then, this speechless film may just leave you speechless.